OK, Hanford: Time to start listening to whistleblowers

The B reactor complex, operating in the 1940s, was the earliest facility to turn out large amounts of waste at Hanford. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

The Department of Energy ignored a December memo by a top engineer, urging that the agency stop construction of a nuclear waste processing complex at Hanford due to safety concerns. The whistleblower, Gary Brunson, was the director of the U.S. Department of Energy's engineering division for the glassification complex currently under construction. He resigned earlier this month, just before former Gov. Chris Gregoire and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu agreed to ramp up work on the slowed-down project. 

Brunson's memo, released Wednesday by watchdog organization Hanford Challenge, alleged that the project faces significant quality control problems, including temperatures high enough to corrode tanks filled with nuclear waste, inadequate safety margins in some designs by lead contractor Bechtel National Inc. and other "significant perfomance issues."

"This memorandum recommends, based upon a compelling body of objective evidence demonstrating indeterminate quality throughout the [glassification] facilities, that all activities affecting engineering design, nuclear safety and construction and installation [at the Hanford complex] be stopped to avoid further nuclear safety compromises and substantial rework," Brunson wrote.

Brunson is the latest in a string of senior Hanford supervisors who have complained that the project's engineering shortcomings have not been sufficiently addressed. Crosscut has published stories on earlier concerns about engineering questions, with the most in-depth last May. Three senior supervisors claim they have been retaliated against because they raised engineering concerns that would slow down the project's schedule.

Hanford Challenge, a watchdog organization, released the memo on Wednesday. "The DOE has pledged to address its broken safety culture, which has stifled the reporting of concerns and made examples of high-profile managers who dared speak out. Brunson's departure, along with his memo calling for work suspension at the facility, is yet another example of the failure of DOE to assure that safety concerns are adequately addressed. This project is currently the only plan for dealing with high-level nuclear waste stored at Hanford," said Tom Carpenter, director of Hanford Challenge.

Hanford is arguably the most radioactive and chemically contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere. Its worst problem is the 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste currently stored in 177 leak-prone underground tanks. Hanford's master plan is to build a complex to convert a major portion of the sludges and fluids into benign glass to be stored at a yet-to-be-determined location.

The complex will consist of a "pretreatment plant" to convert a mixture of sludges, liquids and gunk into fluids of specific physical and chemical specifications. These fluids will be sent to one of two Hanford glassification plants. One would glassify highly radioactive wastes, while the other would glassify wastes with lower radioactivity.

When the project began in the 1990s, its cost was estimated at $4 billion, with glassification set to begin in 2001. Today the price tag is up to $12.2 billion with a 2019 start date. Numerous major engineering questions have sprouted in recent years — particularly with regard to the pretreatment plant, a complicated series of pipes and mixing tanks.

The Federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is a governmental agency tasked with providing "recommendations and advice to the President and the Secretary of Energy regarding public health and safety issues at Department of Energy defense nuclear facilities." FDNFSB agrees with many concerns raised by the whistleblowing Hanford supervisors. Among those concerns are whether radioactive wastes will corrode tanks inside the pretreatment building, whether radioactive leaks or spraying mists will occur within that building, whether uncontrolled bursts of radiation will occur, whether hydrogen gases could cause flames or explosions that could damage pipes and tanks, and whether Hanford project managers and scientists understand the waste's chemistry enough to make sure equipment is up to snuff.

Looming over these questions is the fact that all three glassification buildings will be too radioactive for anyone to actually enter. All repairs and modifications will have to be made by remote control.

It doesn't seem that will get in the way of the Department of Energy's construction plans though. According to a Wednesday Tri-City Herald report, not only have Gregoire and Chu agreed to ramp up delayed construction of the waste melter facility, but the state and the DOE have agreed to explore bypassing the pretreatment facility altogether. This would mean sending some wastes directly from the underground tanks to the high-level-waste melter facility, the Herald said.

The state and feds say this would allow them to meet a legal deadline to start treating waste by 2019. Meanwhile, work on the pretreatment plant's problems would continue without this time constraint. This idea raises important questions about the implications of skipping an entire step in the treatment of nuclear waste, which Crosscut plans to investigate further.

"Last year, the Department stopped construction work impacted by the technical uncertainties associated with the Pretreatment and High-Level Waste facilities. The Department will continue and, as appropriate, ramp up construction work not impacted by the remaining technical issues. The [glassification] project will also continue to systematically address all of the issues in order to confidently resume the remaining construction and complete a safe and reliable facility." There is a saying: The proof is in the pudding.

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